New Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema bragged earlier this year about the dominance he and his coaching staff had in keeping Wisconsin athletes home to play for the Badgers during Bielema’s seven-year run in Madison. Not a single high school player targeted by the Badgers staff escaped the state’s borders, Bielema claimed.
Bret Bielema said he planned to accomplish that at Arkansas too, at least after the new staff’s first haul that was brought in last February. In that one, the Razorbacks were spurned by North Little Rock running back Altee Tenpenny, who had committed to Alabama last year and held firm on his pledge to the Crimson Tide on national signing day. Recruiting experts readily gave Bielema a pass on that “miss,” saying this new staff had too much ground to make up on Tenpenny, even though Arkansas’ new style of offensive attack under Bielema was expected to focus much more on running backs anyone saw from the previous Hog staff.
But sealing up the state’s borders has, for the most part, been practically impossible since freshmen became eligible for varsity competition it 1972. Whether it was Graylon Wyatt of Texarkana (Texas), or Chet Winters from Jacksonville and Robert Lee Steward of Forrest City (Oklahoma) in the 1970s, all the way to Tenpenny this past year, Arkansas coaches from Frank Broyles to Bielema have never had the state completely locked down in terms of keeping the top stars at home.
The worst exodus came in between Lou Holtz’s departure and Ken Hatfield’s arrival, when future All-Americans Keith Jackson
(Little Rock Parkview) and Mark Hutson (Fort Smith Northside), plus future All-Big 8 defensive tackle Curtice Williams (Pine Bluff) emigrated in winter 1984. But the door was already left open by Holtz when he failed to keep Pine Bluff’s Danny Bradley and Little Rock Hall’s Leslie O’Neal home earlier in the 1980s. To many of the top black stars in Arkansas’ high school, playing for the Razorbacks wasn’t so cool. It took a heckuva job by Hatfield to change the image, and it was still left to Houston Nutt well into the 1990s to make the Hogs attractive to most in-state stars again.
Bielema is likely to learn that the lure of so many big-time programs in close proximity will make putting a fence around Arkansas a much different task than he had at Wisconsin, which typically produced only 6-7 Badgers signees a year.
Again, he doesn’t have to take offense if a homegrown star has stars in his eyes when Longhorn, Sooner or Volunteer coaches come calling. It’s nothing new. This staff will be tested with the next two in-state classes to live up to the dream of keeping everyone home.
On a positive note, the fact that Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and plenty more programs are targeting Arkansas players
in larger numbers than we’ve seen indicates that the talent in state is on a major upswing. In this rising senior class alone, two massive defensive tackles (Bihjon Jackson of El Dorado and Josh Frazier of Springdale Har-Ber) have attracted double-digit scholarship offers from the usual array of powershouses; Arkansas typically has a good year if it produces just one defensive tackle of such difference-making note. Bielema and his staff are already ahead of the game here, too, with a commitment from Jackson.
Arkansas also has in-state commitments in the 2014 class from tight end Jack Kraus of Bentonville and running back Juan Day of North Little Rock.
What’s fascinating about how recruiting has changed so dramatically in recent years is that Arkansas’ 2015 in-state class is seeing a rush from the powerhouse teams as well (in essence, the power teams, including Arkansas, are trying to set the table for 2015′s signing day while also pulling in enough commitments to sign next February, the 2014 class, and they’re also eying rising sophomores such as Star City defensive tackle Austin Capps). This weekend, Charleston quarterback Ty Storey, a rising junior, is scheduled to visit Arkansas, and he already told recruiting writer Luke Matheson this week that he “hoped” to get an offer from Arkansas.
Seems a no-brainer from this viewpoint: Alabama and Auburn have already offered. Storey is a passer coming off an ACL tear who might be lured more to a team that airs it out the way Bobby Petrino and crew did at Arkansas in 2010-11; Storey was also quoted in another recruiting column as citing a strong relationship already in place with Arkansas native Rhett Lashlee, an assistant for Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
Another 2015 prospect on everyone’s radar is Pine Bluff tight end Will Gragg, who played sparingly as a sophomore for the Zebras but projects with his outstanding size and speed for the position. Gragg has also commanded offers from Alabama and Ole Miss.
No question Malzahn and his Auburn assistants, including Arkansans Lashlee and Tim Horton, will be canvassing the state even more than we saw when Arkansas native Tommy Tuberville was leading the Tigers. And remember, Tuberville was able to slip future All-SEC Lee Ziemba out of northwest Arkansas along with Fort Smith Northside quarterback Kodi Burns.
Ole Miss and its head coach Hugh Freeze, enjoying amazing recruiting success in Oxford in just a year-and-a-half on the job, will also try to cherry-pick Arkansas for its rare four and five stars. Former Rebels coach Houston Nutt attempted a similar strategy after leaving Fayetteville for Oxford, but Nutt lacked the sales ability Freeze apparently possesses.
And don’t think that Alabama coach Nick Saban wouldn’t like to gig Bielema and take another prize out of Arkansas, particularly when Bielema’s speaking tour comments about Saban and his record in the Big Ten were made public earlier this spring. Sure, Saban publicly said he wasn’t even thinking about Bielema’s widely reported words, but anyone who knows the SEC knows that privately they are locked away in Saban’s memory bank on his personal bulletin board.
Words around this league DO matter, and the best words ever uttered about the SEC came from longtime assistant coach Joe Kines, who toiled a while at Arkansas: “In the SEC, they will cut your throat and drink your blood.” You better believe it is ruthless, and Bielema got to see some of that first hand when Urban Meyer brought his Florida recruiting ways to Ohio State two years ago, causing some bad feelings there.
Multiply that by 13, because every coach in the SEC is going to do what it takes to corral the top talent, no matter how poorly their programs have performed over the past few years. The new staffs at Tennessee and Kentucky appear to have hit the ground running in their first full year procuring SEC-quality players for programs that need a boost; Kentucky beat out Auburn, Georgia and Clemson for a speedster all-purpose back out of Georgia this week, in fact. Butch Jones has used his Ohio connections to move two handfuls of top prospects toward the Volunteer camp.
Hugh Freeze joined Saban, LSU’s Les Miles, Florida’s Will Muschamp and Georgia’s Mark Richt in hauling in a Top 10-or-better class last February, and the top commitments keep coming. Freeze is even starting to lock down most of Mississippi’s top players.
Arkansas won’t win just securing everyone from in-state, but it also can’t win if the top prospects are bolting for Alabama or elsewhere. Bret Bielema seems well aware of this, but keeping most of them at home will be as hard as it’s ever been for an Arkansas head coach.